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Rare ancients to top London coin auction

A unique and beautiful Type 2 aureus of Augustus Caesar will be offered by Dix Noonan Webb in their ancient and world coins sale scheduled for Sept. 22 in London. It is expected to fetch £300,000 to £350,000 [$500,000-$600,000].

The exact date the gold aureus was struck is unknown but must have been between 27 B.C.E. and 18 B.C.E. In 27 B.C.E. Octavian, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar, founded the principate and took the name Augustus, meaning stately or dignified.

A rare Roman aureus of the Emperor Augustus will be offered  at auction in London.

A rare Roman aureus of the Emperor Augustus will be offered at auction in London.

The depiction of Augustus on the obverse contrasts sharply with the severe portraits found on late-republican Roman coins. Octavian is rendered as a composed, noble and commanding figure; a veritable Apollo. As the cataloguer notes, when compared with the statue of Augustus in the Vatican, this coin contains arguably the best portrait found on any Roman coin.

The reverse by an unknown Greek master-sculptor depicts a heifer. The design celebrates Augustus’ dedication of the temple of Apollo on the Palatine. The temple’s centerpiece is an altar with four statues of heifers by the sculptor Myron of Eleutherae.

Just 22 examples of the heifer-reverse aureus minted for Augustus are known. Of these 15 are in museums, leaving just seven available to private collectors. These come in five varieties with Augustus bare-headed or laureated and the emperor and heifer facing different ways.

That coin being offered by Dix Noonan Webb is a unique Type 2 coin with the laureate head of Augustus facing right and the heifer looking left.

As Christopher Webb, head of the coins at the firm, observes, “This is a truly extraordinary coin. Not only is it a unique type of an already very rare coin, but its condition after more than 2,000 years is extremely fine and visually it is a beautiful work of art. It represents an epic period when Augustus built an empire that changed the course of human history.”

Another highlight of the DNW sale will be one of only three known surviving examples of a gold double solidus that depicts Aelia Eudocia, wife of Emperor Theodosius II. The EF-graded coin will go to the block with an estimate of £80,000 to £100,000 [$137,000 to $171,000].

One of three known gold double solidus of Aelia Eudocia will go on the auction block at the DNW sale.

One of three known gold double solidus of Aelia Eudocia will go on the auction block at the DNW sale.

This coin was struck in 5th century Constantinople. It could well have been a special striking of presentation piece for senior court officials and/or imperial governors. Eudocia is shown on the obverse in her imperial regalia. On the reverse she is enthroned complete with halo, a symbol of sovereignty, enlightenment and divinity.

Eudocia was a remarkable and well educated woman but one who has been airbrushed out of history. She had been born a pagan named Athenaïs c. 401 C.E. Her father was a wealthy and prominent philosopher. He ensured his daughter received a thorough education and found she had a superb memory. At some point she came to Constantinople where, the story goes, the 20-year-old Emperor Theodosius was looking for a bride.

Theodosius’ sister, Pulcheria, and a good friend discovered Athenaïs who proved, “very beautiful, pure and dainty, eloquent as well”. Theodosius took one look and fell in love. Athenaïs converted to Christianity and changed her name to Aelia Eudocia. They got married on June 7, 421, with Eudocia becoming Empress.

The following year she gave birth to a daughter. On Jan. 2, 423, Theodosius raised her to the rank of Augusta and gave her imperial powers previously wielded by his sister. He ordered gold solidi to be struck bearing her portrait.

For the next two decades she exercised considerable influence at the court. She published literature, bought order into the chaos that passed for higher learning in Constantinople, sponsored major building works in the imperial capital and sought to introduce religious tolerance.

At some point her relationship with both Theodosius and Pulcheria soured. In 438 she went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It proved a resounding success with the people there. Back home her return bearing holy relics was a triumph.

However, in 443 she was accused of adultery and banished from Constantinople. She returned to Jerusalem. As the most senior member of the imperial family in Palestine she was effectively ruler of the province, retaining the title of Augusta along with her wealth.

Her rule proved very enlightened. She thoroughly immersed herself in local ecclesiastical issues and pressed for a reduction in persecution of the Jews. Her wealth supplied a new set of walls for the Holy City and various other public buildings.

She continued her literary endeavors, recasting biblical stories in Homeric verse and composing an eight-book poem on the martyrdom of St. Cyprian.

She died on Oct. 20, 460, in Jerusalem and is buried in the church of St Stephen. At this point subsequent Roman historians wrote her out of history. They discounted her as having fallen into disgrace. In Palestine it was a different matter. There her memory was honored.

Full details of the coin and the auction can be found at the DNW website: www.dnw.co.uk; click on “Ancient and World Coins”.

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